Finally the spotlight is back on the true pioneers of graffiti art, the American name writers. We sat down with one of the originators, BLADE (Bronx born Steven Ogburn, 1957), while he was visiting Holland to celebrate the opening of the group show ‘ICONS II’ at gallery Vroom & Varossieau in the South-district of Amsterdam. Located at the Willemsparkweg, the same street where pioneering gallery owner Yaki Kornblit organized the first graffiti exhibitions back in 1983. And we had a little chat with Mick La Rock, the Dutch ‘Queen of Graffiti’. She’s a key figure in the Holland-New York connection. Things seem to be coming full circle as the interest in old school graffiti culture is higher than ever.
For those who don’t know, BLADE started writing his name on New York subways back in the early 70’s and is one of the oldest, still active, artists from the early days of Graffiti. By painting over 5.000 pieces on steel he earned the title ‘King of Graffiti’. He’s also one of the first artists who made the transition from the streets to the galleries and museums.
In a time when the art world didn’t recognize the quality of graffiti, it was the vision, courage and bold moves of a select group of gallery owners and art collectors that would push open the doors to a new world. Heroes to many and ‘culture vultures’ to some, the fact remains it can’t be disputed these influential people were a crucial force within the movement. They gave street kids the opportunity to step up their game, earn money and create better living conditions for themselves.
Back in The Bronx
A young and rebellious Steven started writing ‘BLADE’ on trains in the early 70’s when the Vietnam War was raging and The Bronx housing projects were burning. Not a friendly environment to grow up in, to put it mildly. Kids were looking for escapism from the mayhem and found it by spray painting their names BIG in bright colors.
BLADE: “In the early 70’s it was all about having fun. I was a positive dude, always on the bright side of life. When the world around you is burning you don’t want to concentrate on the negative. My pieces reflected my mindstate.
The race thing just didn’t matter. It wasn’t about prejudice.
Our graffiti crew, ‘The Crazy Five’, consisted of all different nationalities. VAMM is Italian, CRACHEE is Jewish, TULL 13 is Yugoslavian, DEATH is Irish and I was the black kid of the bunch. Later COMET, who is also Italian, and AJAX, who is Portugese, joined the team. The race thing just didn’t matter. It wasn’t about prejudice. It was about young kids cutting out of school and having fun while painting trains. When I travelled to SEEN’s neighborhood, who lived in another part of The Bronx, I could get shot only because of my color of skin. But when we were on the traintracks, painting together, we were living the ‘fun life’. That’s what made the comradery work.”
Entering the art world
According to BLADE Holland was the first European country where high-end galleries and museums had the courage to grant American graffiti writers their own platform. Kickstarted in 1983 by solo shows in Gallery Yaki Kornblit in Amsterdam and closely followed by Rotterdam based Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen who organized the legendary first Dutch ‘Graffiti’ show.
Also the Groninger Museum became a major player by organizing important exhibitions in the early 80’s. This eventually lead to the big 1992 group show ‘Coming From The Subway: New York Graffiti Art’ where writers from all over Holland (and Europe) gathered to meet the American pioneers.
BLADE: “I was just a knucklehead kid from the projects with nothing to do. Suddenly a Dutch Mr. Yaki Kornblit comes to New York and pulls me, DONDI, FUTURA, DAZE, CRASH, QUIK, SEEN, RAMMELLZEE, BIL BLAST and ZEPHYR from the gutter to the world of art collectors. He got us to come over to Amsterdam, one by one, to do solo shows in his gallery. After that the museums followed.
I’m still proud of the fact I was the first graffiti writer who made it to a cover of a Sotheby’s catalog in 2003. It showed a painting based on my ‘In & Out’ whole car with the screaming face. They tought I had made a tribute to ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch. Not true, this was just my impression of a guy on Acid, haha!”
BLADE: “We first earned the respect of the local Amsterdam graffiti writers. Those kids learned from us and developed their own styles. Take for example the wall I’ve painted together with JAZ, DELTA, RHYME and CAT 22 in the Vondelpark back in 1986. CAT 22 even went back to make a new BLADE when my piece got crossed out.”
Those kids learned from us and developed their own styles.
BLADE: “The true moment of acceptance came in the form of the 1992 group show ‘Coming From The Subway’ in the Groninger Museum. People from all over the world were suddenly acknowledging our work as ‘true art’ because it was shown on a huge scale in a respected museum.
Those works are important pieces of art. They should be put on public display before all the original artists and collectors are dead and burried.
Untill this day the Groninger Museum still has at least 100 graffiti artworks, collected in the 80’s, in storage. Those works are important pieces of art. They should be put on public display before all the original artists and collectors are dead and burried. People such as Yaki Kornblit, Vincent Vlasblom, Henk Pijnenburg and Willem Speerstra should receive the credit they deserve. In my opinion they are geniuses with the insight to buy rebellious art at the right moment.”
A King and Queen creation
In March of this year BLADE and Mick La Rock (a.k.a. MICKEY TFP) were invited to do a collaboration art project in the Helsinki Art Museum in Finland. Mick La Rock’s relationship with the New York graffiti scene has a long history.
Mick La Rock: “I grew up in Groningen. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the early 80’s Amsterdam-New York connection because I didn’t travel to Amsterdam before I turned 16. When the book Spraycan Art was published in 1987 I was amazed Amsterdam and Eindhoven were featured. This was the first time I read about Yaki Kornblit. His gallery was already a myth by then.
I wanted to talk about whole car graffiti burners, but he’d rather discuss the deeper layers of dissecting the alphabet.
For me it became personal when the Groninger Museum started to organize more graffiti shows. I can clearly remember the 1987 RAMMELLZEE exhibition. He was the first New York writer to put a ‘tag’ in my blackbook. At that time I didn’t understand his work, theories and vision. I wanted to talk about whole car graffiti burners, but he’d rather discuss the deeper layers of dissecting the alphabet, haha!”
Mick La Rock: “For my development and career as a graffiti artist ‘Coming From The Subway’ has been most important. Through QUIK I got to know BLADE. They introduced me to the other NY-writers who all helped me get to a next level.
I see New York as my ‘second home’.
Eventually this lead to an invitation to come to New York in the early 90’s. Through the years I went back there on a regular basis to paint. I see New York as my ‘second home’. In 2015 I was asked to be the guest curator for the exhibition ‘Graffiti. New York Meets The Dam’ at the Amsterdam Museum. I had to do thorough research into the early New York-Amsterdam graffiti connection. In doing this the early graffiti history of Amsterdam finally became a part of my own history.
Working with BLADE in Helsinki went real smooth. I was his personal assistant but was also invited as an artist. We’ve been friends for years and know each other’s way of thinking. For the HAM we’ve painted two murals together. His traditional graffiti pieces and my abstract minimal style turned out to be a great combination.”
Drop the ego!
A few last words. BLADE has something important to say.
BLADE: “Writers should respect each other as ‘one of the group’. How stupid is it to have beef with a guy that’s into exactly the same thing as you do? For example Amsterdam writers beefing with writers from Rotterdam and vice versa. When LEE did something more incredible than I did the previous week it got me motivated. Like John Lennon who just wrote Imagine and Paul McCartney rushing home to write Yesterday. You don’t go around crossing out the other guys quality work. That’s what’s happening in graffiti right now, because of this ego thing.
We should unite as one family, it could change the course of everything.
I’m looked upon as the ‘King of Graffiti’ but you don’t see me walking around with my nose high up in the sky. On the entire planet you now have hundreds of thousands of kids, from all nationalities and backgrounds, that are into graffiti writing. We should unite as one family, it could change the course of everything.”